On FearVR and the Pitfalls of Acquiescing to a Complaining and Offended Minority

Knott's Berry Farm, Buena Park, CA

By now, you've probably heard at least something about the news that a virtual reality haunted attraction at three theme parks--including Knott's Scary Farm, has been shut down due to controversy it stirred up by a small conglomerate of parties claiming that this attraction is insensitive to people with mental illness and perpetuates the stigma that mentally ill persons are violent and dangerous.  This response has in turned stirred up a powerful backlash within the haunt community against the original protesters and against Cedar Fair for giving into a modest sized but vocal group who never actually experienced the attraction, yet complained about being offended by a form of amusement that had no direct impact on them.  In addition, since the story first broke, both Cedar Fair and Six Flags have also scrubbed references to "asylum"-themed attractions from their haunt offerings, hastily repackaging and remarketing them in more generic horror themes.

I've been meaning to put down some thoughts to this issue.  It seems that every season, somewhere, some haunt has some sort of an issue with controversy that results in a public relations nuisance.  Knott's themselves have recently seen this with complaints against the Fiesta de los Muertos scare zone for being supposedly insulting to Hispanics and an issue with the Green Witch allegedly insulting a guest (her character is supposed to be mean) a couple of years ago.  Universal Studios closed their Bill and Ted Show in Hollywood following accusations of homophobic and racist content.  Given the provocative nature and intense and adult subject matter of haunts, this controversy isn't necessarily surprising.  But this sensational uprising around Fear VR may have brought a a watershed moment in the creative nature of haunted attraction design and direction, and it is important to understand the ramifications of everything that is happening.

In this long-form editorial, I'll cover the background and sequence of events of the FearVR squabble, discuss the motivations of the parties involved, analyze the balance of sensitivity to issues of social importance against the dangers of being overly politically correct, and examine the fallout that has already started to accumulate in the haunt industry in just these past few days.

FearVR was formerly accessed from the Boardwalk Ballroom, where Dead of Winter is housed.

What Happened

To understand what the fuss is all about, it's important to clearly know the timeline of events that transpired.

Last month, right after Labor Day,Cedar Fair announced the upcoming premiere of a new attraction called FearVR: 5150 to the Halloween events at Knott's Berry Farm, California's Great Adventure, and Canada's Wonderland.  This would be Cedar Fair's first foray into virtual reality entertainment for their Halloween productions, joining the recent trend of virtual reality incorporation into amusement park offerings, such as Six Flags' VR alternate experiences on roller coasters in parks around the country.  As originally announced, this upcharge attraction promised that:

Greeted by ominous nurses at the Meadowbrook Institute, visitors become the latest occupants inside the mysterious facility. Once checked-in, the new patients are warned of a dangerous, telekinetic female inmate known as “Katie,” who has just gone missing. Strapped to a specialized wheelchair, patients’ senses are bombarded while the facility walls unravel with horrific evil (FearVR: 5150 requires an additional fee and is not included in Fright Lane or Skeleton Key).

The attraction would utilize Samsung's Oculus technology, where Samsung smart phone devices where attached into adaptive "googles" worn by guests that fully encompassed their cone of vision and immersed them within the virtual world of the film. 

On that same day, the Los Angeles Times published a review on FearVR: 5150 by resident theme park critic, Brady MacDonald, previewing the attraction and summarizing his experience and thoughts.  In the article, he described guests being strapped down to wheelchairs set within a psychiatric hospital, before encountering "demonically possessed" Katie and having to escape the havoc she wrecks as her supernatural powers spiral chaos all around.  No commentary on content matter was expressed, and Brady even mentioned wanting more in terms of a more immsersive and dynamic experience.  OC Weekly also published a preview of the attraction and made note of the setting being a hospital and the presence of nurses and patients.

The first stirrings of an issue began a couple of weeks later, when several mental health advocacy groups expressed concerns that this attraction was perpetuating the stigma against mental health, making use of the old stereotype of mentally ill people being unstable, violent, and dangerous.  Representatives called FearVR: 5150 insensitive and offensive to this demographic.  It is likely that the "5150" inclusion--which refers to the section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code that allows a person suspected of mental disorder and considered to be a danger to others or themselves to be committed or confined at a mental institution--created an association with mental illness, even though the publicly released summary of the plot made no actual mention of the mentally ill at all.  Their outcry prompted Knott's and the other parks to remove the "5150" portion from the title, acknowledging the rather careless nature of the full attraction name and maintaining that FearVR was never meant to demean the issues and experiences of the mentally ill.  This temporarily appeased activists, but they warned that should the content matter still contain a plot that painted the mentally ill in a bad light and perpetuated the stigmatization of the mentally ill, further protest would follow.

John Leyerle, president of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) Orange County, noted:

"But the next step is to see what the attraction actually presents to the patrons.  Is it just zombies and ghosts trying to give you a Halloween fright, or is there a plausible connection to a psychiatric institution with a mentally ill patient who is demonically possessed? If that’s the case, all they would’ve done is change the label without changing the content.”

Last week's opening weekend saw the debut of the attraction, and by most accounts, it was an interesting and fun experience that marked optimistic promise for a new medium in haunted attraction technology.  But for mental health advocates, it was the confirmation of their fears: FearVR associated those suffering from mental illness with danger and threat.  Ron Thomas, one of the parties protesting the attraction (and father to Kelly Thomas, the mentally ill 37 year-old who was tragically beaten the death by Fullerton cops following a 2011 confrontation) went to Knott's Scary Farm in an attempt to experience the attraction.  Unfortunately, by the time he arrived, the rather limited reservations to the attraction were already exhausted, so he instead interviewed guests exiting FearVR, asking to describe what their experiences were like.  Their responses led him to believe that the name change had been merely superficial, with the content still offensive. 

That weekend, a petition was also started on Change.org demanding that the attraction be removed from the event.  Created by Mary Courtney-Sheldon, a self-described "30+ year advocate for neurologically impaired children and adults," the petition expressed outrage that serious issues of mental illness would be used as entertainment and labeled FearVR as a "stigma propagation machine."

And so, the emails, petitions, and phone calls continued.  By this past Monday, September 26, the Saddleback Church community had joined in the campaign when Kay Warren, wife of pastor Rick Warren, wrote a public Facebook post denouncing the attraction and calling for its closure.

"Knots [sic] Berry Farm has a psychiatric ward with a demonic patient in their Halloween set. This is NOT entertainment. I'm infuriated that they use the pain & suffering of millions of people for laughs or thrills. Take it down!" she criticized, which ignited a firestorm of sympathizers who joined in on expressing their outrage at Knott's insensitivity and mockery of such a serious issue.

Two days later, Cedar Fair announced that FearVR would be removed from the three parks in which it was being offered.  The mental health advocates had won, and they celebrated their victory.  But this was not the end.  Outraged that a minority group of political correctness defenders had managed to get a labor of hard work and artistic creativity in the horror genre removed, simply because of perceived insult, they launched their own counter-protest--complete with counter-petition--to try to bring FearVR back to the parks and make their voices heard to the higher ups at Cedar Fair.  Many within this coalition noted that they themselves suffer from mental illness (depending on the person, this ranged from minor symptoms such as anxiety to more severe afflictions such as past suicidal tendencies), but they did not feel the virtual reality attraction was offensive or belittling.  In addition, many also expressed concern for job security of the staff and actors associated with the attraction (which includes practical scares at the end of the experience by live actors)--something that those wishing to cancel FearVR likely ignored as a negative consequence.

And so we come to today, where the "Bring Back FearVR" campaign continues and has even gotten traction across some media outlets outside of California, such as The Christian Post, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and Independent Journal Review.  This weekend, Knott's Berry Farm, California's Great America, and Canada's Wonderland have already distributed maps with the FearVR attraction removed, so there is little chance it will be brought back despite the support it has garnered.  But those who support freedom of artistic expression and free speech and creative openness for the haunted attraction industry maintain that their voices still must be heard.

FearVR on the opening weekend Knott's Scary Farm map.

The Facts About FearVR

A lot of focus has been about how FearVR paints mentally ill people in a horrible light, portraying them as violently dangerous individuals who should be locked up.  But that underscores a huge misconception about the attractions that all the opponents have carried: FearVR is NOT abouta mentally ill patient that wrecks havoc at a hospital.  It is about a demonically possessed girl who has supernatural powers... who wrecks havoc at a hospital.

Our friends at Park Journey recently posted not one but two reviews and summaries of the attraction from individuals who actually experienced it.  In addition, InPark Magazine conducted an interview with Hollow Studios a week and a half ago (before the controversy even really broke public consciousness) that clearly identified the setting as "an ominous research facility" rather than a hospital and reiterated that patient Katie has "supernatural, telekinetic abilities" rather than mental illness. 

FearVR tells the tale of a human with enhanced and horrifying powers inside a medical facility, and that is it.  All association with mental illness and subsequent stigmatization has been made from the unfortunate original name's "5150" reference and the asylum-connotative environment.

Had any of the complaining parties involved--NAMI and its associated mental health advocate groups; Ron Thomas and his associated parties; Kay and Rick Warren and Saddleback Church--actually experienced the attraction and seen the execution of the storyline, their opinions may have carried more integrity, or they also would have seen that their complaints had no merit.  But none of them did.  Instead, these highly influential entities propagated misguided information about the nature of the attraction, building enough outrage across their widespread audience to flood Cedar Fair with complaints across multiple media and pressure the parks into removing the experience.

Such seems to be the norm in today's (mis)information age, where half-truths and sometimes flat-out lies can spread very quickly among people who do not fact check or question sensationalist claims.  This lack of critical thinking has helped perpetuate hoaxes and mistruths and strained the ability to have civil discourse.  Unfortunately, this has now affected the haunt world.

The Flaws in Vicarious Anger and Offense

These days, people love to express their outrage, particularly when it allows them to publicly demonstrate their support virtue on a hot-button social justice topic.  While this has plenty of positive effects, such as advancing important causes in the civil liberties of minorities such as gays and transgendered or highlighting the plight of racial minorities that still exists in many areas across the country, it can also create reckless damage when those who are angry do not do thorough research into what they are angry about and instead simply focus on taking down the target of their rage.  Lives have been ruined by online witch hunts on people who committed stupid acts or said idiotic things but didn't necessarily deserve to be completely demonized for such mistakes.

Lets be clear: when it comes to the issue of mental health, it is absolutely important to have compassion and understanding for the plight of those suffering.  Statistically, up to one in four Americans have some form of mental illness.  Many struggle with it daily and hide their tribulations.  We as a society have seen when mental illness goes untreated and results in tragedy--be it mass shooting sprees or (in the case of Kelly Thomas) unnecessary death due to mishandling by authorities. 

However, our care and consideration for this issue should not be so heightened that we have to constantly be on the guard of performing acts or creations that be perceived to be offensive to such people.  This applies to anything, frankly.  People often have the mistaken belief that America's freedom and liberty means they have the right to anything they want, including not being offended, but this is absolutely untrue.

No one owns the right to avoid being offended.  Being offended is subjective and 100% a choice that every single person makes.  It is not an intrinsic attribute such as race, sexuality, or to some extent even religious belief, which are or become ingrained into people's very identities and then fall under the protection of civil liberties legislation.  A joke or broadcast that offends one person may be perfectly fine for another, because the first person is making a decision to allow the emotions of outrage to flood in, rather than simply drop the subject and move on.

In life, all people will encounter experiences which insult their beliefs, persons, or characteristics.  This is a basic aspect of life.  And though it is okay for a person to be offended when faced with an insulting catalyst, it is not okay for that person to cause the removal of said catalyst and prevent others from being able to experience and draw their own conclusions (assuming the catalyst is not actually and tangibly harmful). 

The proper response to being offended is to disassociate from the source of offense.  It is not to eliminate it like one would a scourge on the Earth.  Don't like FearVR?  Don't go.  But don't make it so that others who may be interested are prohibited from seeing it themselves.  That is immature and petty--the equivalent of a child taking his ball and going home because something didn't go his way, and now no one else can play.  Actually, to be honest, it's probably more equivalent of a child taking someone else's ball and going home.

In the case of Fear VR, the attraction 1) was not actually even about the mentally ill and 2) did not actually increase the hardship or suffering of those who suffer from mental illness.  It didn't reduce treatment available to assist the mentally ill; it didn't broadcast any message to mistreat or devalue the mentally ill; it didn't even really say anything about the mentally ill.  The two were non sequitur.  If anything, the party that should have been offended would be the demonically possessed or any Satanists made to look bad through association with demons--an issue Horror Buzz actually addressed via the reaching out to the Church of Satan for their stance on the issue.

The distress of offending someone wouldn't be a problem if it hasn't fostered a cultural environment where public entities now must exercise extreme caution in any open forum and work to make sure their productions and deliverables do not generate a public relations nightmare because someone felt insulted.  Being overly politically correct has now made it so that jokes must always be screened and any tweet can be analyzed and sub-analyzed for anything remotely threatening.  Creative ideas must be stringently scrutinized to make sure no party might become offended.  And any mistake--no matter how unintended--that could be perceived as being derogatory is then engulfed with destructive protest that can ruin what was otherwise a positive product. 

Now, to be fair, this isn't completely a bad thing.  As with anything, there is always a line to balance, and we as a society should not encourage blatant racism or sexism spouted in a hateful manner.  But it's a little excessive to associate having a potentially controversial subject matter with disrespectfully making light of said subject--especially since, as covered already, the understanding of the subject matter has been incorrect to begin with.

Beyond that, it's actually belittling that over-angered advocates react in the manner that the FearVR protesters have done, because they are basically assuming that people will not be able to distinguish the difference between a fictional story and issues and problems rooted in reality.  Just because an attraction takes place in some sort of psychiatric institution doesn't mean it blanket states that mentally ill individuals are threatening.  That would be like circus performers objecting to the depictions of clowns as serial killers, or Goths screaming offense to vampire mazes showing vampires as solely out for blood.  People are smart enough to realize that depictions in creative settings do not reflect reality and instead exaggerate themes and motifs for dramatic effect.  Remember too that the vast majority of commenters on this subject who themselves have mental illness have noted that they have not felt insulted.  For advocates to come in and express offense and outrage on behalf of the mentally ill thus comes off as patronizing, as though they feel the mentally ill cannot speak for themselves and need a more capable party to do so.

In addition, for all the outrage that comes from protests that call for the removal of "something offensive," rarely does any actual positive action occur.  In the case of the FearVR backlash, the NAMI, Ron Thomas and co., and Saddleback Church movements have not raised funds to help the mental illness community, changed legislation (or rallied for it), or even brought out actual discourse on the matter.  They have simply found a target to rail against and shut down a creative endeavor that never even directly affected them, since none of these members (with the exception of Ron Thomas) seem to even visit the park, and may of them even oppose Halloween and its associations out of principle.  This is yet another example of the trap of social justice activism--though it can inspire change for the better, a large majority of times, it's just people complaining and complaining and then getting nothing done (but thinking they made a difference), before moving onto the next hot topic of the day.  This is far from a productive manner in which to improve an issue.

The weekend two Knott's Scary Farm map, with FearVR removed.

On Horror and Edginess

By its very essence, horror involves the exploration of uncomfortable subjects and stories in a cerebral and visceral manner in order to stimulate strong reactions.  The horror genre is meant to be edgy and adult.  And it is inherently psychological.  The base of horror is meant to generate fear--just in a safe and escapable environment.

Because of this, and actual content of FearVR aside, horror has always had a connection with asylum and mental illness motifs.  The human mind is a powerful and curious thing, and while monsters and mummies and zombies and ghosts may not be characters that everyone can directly relate to, most anyone can relate to some order of psychological manipulation--whether it be regular stress, or vary anxiety, or (for some) more.  Haunted attractions build off recurring themes in horror as inspirations and concepts to construct experiences designed to scare and make guests feel uncomfortable.  As with any creative and artistic process, this is all done with the concern of telling a story, and the more realistic and visceral that story can feel, the better.  Under no circumstances does this endorse negative actions or any form of mistreatment and abuse that may themselves be present within the story.  Some of the show writers themselves volunteer with mental health causes and have participated and led fundraising campaigns to further support for the cause. 

At the end of the day, horror and haunted attractions still remain works of fiction, not advocates for any stigma or stereotype.

Fallout and the Setting of Precedence

As frustrating as it may be for haunt community members and fans to see outside groups come into our little domain of frightful fun and practically proselytize a part of it away, ultimately, it is the parks that make the final decision on which to give in to protester demands or stand their ground and defend the creative process of its designers.  In this case, Cedar Fair was the one who pulled the plug on FearVR, not Saddleback Church or NAMI or Ron Thomas or the LA Times.  Fearing a public relations blemish, and focused only on damage control, they made the mistake of acquiescing to a small minority by confusing its vocal nature with representation of a larger majority.  A Twitter poll conducted by a Northern California news outlet found that a large majority supported FearVR remaining open, and though this is hardly a widespread or scientific metric at all, I feel strongly that these results would translate over the greater public.

Now, we at Westcoaster constantly rail against overreaction of any kind and always urge people who fear that one move may lead to a domino effect (mostly looking at you, Disney Twitter) to take a step back and see if will really happen or is just paranoia.  However, in this case, since last Wednesday's FearVR cancellation, the fallout of the move has already spread.  This past weekend, Six Flags renamed any mazes in all of their Fright Fest events across the country that may have had any mental institution references and rethemed them to remove any connotations to mental illness.  California's Great America also removed their "Insanitarium" maze from their line-up, and Carowinds renamed their "7th Ward" maze to "Urgent Scare" (which, I admit, is actually probably a better and definitely wittier name).

This is distressing, because it now empowers any person who might be offended by anything to now start a grassroots protest and take down something that, chances are, he or she would not have even experienced or been affected by anyway.  If asylum themed mazes or content is now prohibited from haunted attractions, what's next?  No more clowns or circus themes because they stereotype carnival performers or supposedly support animal cruelty, because there are some circuses that mistreat their animals?  No ghost mazes because it offends those who believe in the occult and patronizes their values?  No murderous hillbilly mazes because they make Southerners look bad?  What about all the movies and television shows and other forms of media that contain content that might offend the over-reactionary?  At some point, the only horror theme safe might be zombies--and only because they don't have an advocacy group!  This type of move becomes censorship of horror and its creative, artistic expression, and it is disturbing, disappointing, and very sad that Cedar Fair allowed the this momentum to start via its FearVR decision. 

I understand that Cedar Fair faced a difficult decision from a public relations standpoint.  This was a black eye to the company, not in the least because they started with the "5150" inclusion into the name that broadcast a misconception about the attraction.  From their eyes, the protests could grow into something more powerful and harmful and result in financial and reputation loss, similar to what the Blackfish documentary did to Sea World.  They clearly wanted to shut down the vocal opposition as quickly as possible, and when the name change failed to fully quell those voices, they turned to the quick and easy solution and gave up on their own endeavor.

But there are so many better ways Cedar Fair could have handled this controversy.  The company could have set the facts straight and addressed the issue head-on by explaining that the attraction did not actually antagonize mental illness and instead featured a story about demoic possession.  It could have stood behind its designers and supported the venture and its content.  It could done the above and then made a goodwill gesture by using the attention to actually promote support and fundraising for mental illness issues.  In fact, the Change.org petition actually asked for proceeds to be donated to mental illness charities if removing the attraction was not done.  But instead, Cedar Fair chose to bow down to the loudness of a few, at the expense of the much greater haunt-support public that enjoys going to Halloween attractions and getting scared under controlled conditions.  That is an absolute shame.

FearVR removed from the actual map portion as well (compare with the cover image of this article).

Moving Forward

If you feel as strongly about this issue as I do (I've written nearly four thousand words and spent way more time than anticipated on this damn issue, after all), feel free to sign the counter petition on Change.org.  Keep in mind that there is basically no certain chance that FearVR will return this year, and what's done has been done.  But it is important to voice your support and let the company know that giving in to a small minority of complainers is not acceptable.

Beyond that, writing to Knott's Berry Farm (or Great America or Canada's Wonderland) is another effective mode of voicing displeasure.  Opinions can be directed to info@knotts.com, guestcomments@knotts.com, and/or pr@knotts.com.  You can also make phone calls to Knott's or write a letter to:
Knott's Berry Farm
8039 Beach Boulevard.
Buena Park, CA USA 90620

Let Cedar Fair President and CEO, Matt Ouimet and Cedar Fair Regional Vice President Raffi Kaprelyan know that the decision to remove FearVR was not a good one.

If you do choose to make your voice heard, we absolutely encourage and request that you do so in a firm but civil and respectful manner, using professional language and avoiding profanity, insults, or attacks.  Although the cancellation of FearVR has angered many haunt enthusiasts, there is no reason to respond immaturelytoward Knott's (or any of the FearVR protest groups) and give them reason to ignore our community in the future or justification that their opposition is virtuous.

Regardless of what happens, we hope that theme parks do not shirk away from anything that has any chance of offense and instead support creative endeavors, even when they may be risky.  As always, a comprehensive look should be employed at the content of any production.  Does it actually hurt or cause damage?  Does it promote hate and advocate intolerance?  If so, don't do it.  But FearVR did none of those things, and we at Westcoaster hope that this controversy does prompt establishments like Cedar Fair and Six Flags and other haunt community members to inhibit their creative process, just because someone might complain.

Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.